Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie

Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie is Iñupiaq from the North Slope of Alaska. Her maternal family is from Wainwright, she was raised in Wasilla, and her paternal family is from Washington state.

Kellie has enjoyed comparing and contrasting the cultures of her parents and families since childhood. This comparison, fueled by experiences working in corporate communications, rural community economic development, legislative affairs on the state and federal levels, language and cultural instruction, and grassroots community organizing, has led her to discuss specifically about culture–what culture is, how everyone has it, and ways that understanding contrasts can help prevent conflicts. 

Conversation with Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie

 Rather than presenting an anthropological snap-shot, Kivetoruk foreshadows the–story of a cultural shift–one that would require Inpupiat, and all Alaska Native peoples, to fight for their very way of life. Today, Indigenous people continue to live as they always have through cultural practices, language, and community. This knowledge is hard-won and layered in ingenuity and resilience. Often Indigenous people reclaim knowledge by piecing together Elder accounts of pre-contact existence. Language is also a method of reclaiming culture. It describes our existence in how we communicate and relate to the land. But through years of assimilation it can be difficult to return to the Indigenous sustainable and most perfectly designed ways to live in the Arctic.

Conversation with Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie

Melissa Shaginoff: All right. Could you introduce yourself

Cordelia Kellie: Sure. My Inupiaq name is Qiġñaaq, my English name is Cordelia Kellie, and I’m Inupiaq. My family is from Wainwright on the North Slope, which is ninety miles Southwest of Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow. That’s where my mom’s from, where my mom’s family’s from, and I was raised in Wasilla. I spent a good amount of time on the North Slope. And I’m happy to be talking about these paintings today.

Melissa Shaginoff: Tsin’aen, all right. Is there a particular piece you want to look at?

Cordelia Kellie: Yes, the one that shows the inside of this house.

Melissa Shaginoff: Okay. Here we go.

Cordelia Kellie: There we go, yeah. When I look at this one and what attracted me to this one, is the Qargi, Q-A-R-G-I. The Qargi is this institution that we’ve always had of community houses. It is something that we don’t necessarily have in the same way as in this painting, but we have new iterations of it. You can say anytime you walk into somebody’s home that’s Qargi, you can say when we come together for a basketball tournament that’s Qargi. We’re still playing games, we’re still Inupiaq people in a community space under a shared roof. Coming together for hours at a time, seeing each other–being together, recreating together, celebrating, we’re dancing. You could say our gymnasiums are actually our modern-day Qargi.

So I look at this piece with this gentleman. It looks like he’s in his own Qargi. I have spent a lot of time, more so recently, thinking about the Qargi and what that space was traditionally, what that would’ve felt like. I think about that because our Qargi’s spaces were community houses that we created. There are a number of different elements of our culture today that I feel like I have access to, that is still consistent with how things were hundreds of years ago. But one thing I don’t necessarily feel like I have access to in the same way is a sod house.

I ask myself, “Does my generation know how to make a sod house? And do our parents?” Our grandparents certainly, our great-grandparents absolutely. My great-grandpa was born in a sod house. But that’s something that is not being passed on to my generation. Sitting with a friend around a fire in my backyard and we talked and dreamed about what it would be like to make our own sod house, our own Qargi in my backyard here in the city.

Melissa Shaginoff: What is the importance of the Qargi to Inupiat culture?

Cordelia Kellie: I think about what the Qargi was and think about how culture comes from the environment. The Qargi environment was this enclosed space. Everything is connected and no aspect of our culture is in isolation. When I think about the Qargi in this enclosed space, I think about how that informs our speech and dancing.

It’s like if you look at dancing all over the world, there’s certain dancing that requires a lot of space in your dance motions, but if you look at our Inupiaq ways of dancing, we’re close together, we’re in a line, our feet are stationary, and we’re moving our arms and we’re bending our knees, and sometimes we’re stomping our feet, but we’re not moving all over the floor like a waltz. Or we’re not moving all over the dance floor how you might be in a club. And that comes from something. Our dances are consistent. I think about maybe hundreds of years from now when we don’t have the Qargi, I wonder, will our dances change or will people understand where our dances came from?

Another thing that came to mind recently is that I have had the experience to learn how to make a naniq, make a seal oil lamp, my first ever naniq. It was a Zoom class from a Canadian Inuit, and then bringing that technology back home and is revitalizing it here. When I was working with the naniq, and I was on zoom, and I was showing it to someone, and it was lit right in front of me. I noticed that whenever I wanted to make an aspirated noise sound, whenever I wanted to make a P sound with air, my naniq would go out, or it would threaten to go out. So that, in my mind, I’m thinking about the environment. I’m thinking about how culture comes from the environment and how our language was formed by these environmental conditions.

In Inupiaq, in our language…I think, we don’t have a lot of glottals, but our words are unaspirated a lot of times, so we don’t have a lot of explosives. For example, we don’t have a lot of words where you have a lot of breath. Our Ps sound like Bs, or in between Bs. So there’s a lot of sounds that are just unaspirated. So if you put your hand in front of your mouth and you try to say the word, you shouldn’t feel breath, and that’s how you know it’s correct.

Perhaps because it’s so cold, we learn to speak without opening our mouths very wide like other languages. Or maybe it’s things like the naniq, where you’re over your seal oil lamp, which is your source of heat and light and way of cooking, It’s the center of your sod house, your Qargi, and if you’re tending it constantly, maybe that’s enough to alter how it is that you speak. So that you don’t blow out your source of light and heat and have to restart. It is just that incredibly important. You think about what other environmental conditions might cause you to alter your way of speaking.

Melissa Shaginoff: Wow. Oh my gosh. I never even thought about that. You learn so much about a culture by learning about its language and what it values right? But you’re going even into the engineering of your language, how it is that you make those sounds, and why. Can you expand a little more on the concept of the Qargi in your culture and maybe some of the physical elements we see in this scene?

Cordelia Kellie: What I’ve read about the Qargi’s is that they’re very much like the dance space, the storytelling space, the place that you entertain, leadership would entertain visitors from afar, those types of things. And they could get relatively large, and because of that, your naniqs, your seal oil lamps could also get very long and very large. I guess I’m also curious about, in looking at this specifically, I’m also curious about the mask that is there. There’s a mask on the upper left-hand corner. It is of a person, and it’s a red face and it has two horns. The obvious thought to me is that it’s the mask of a devil or Satan, which is not in my understanding in Inupiaq. That to me speaks to the very strong influence from Christianity. I know an Elder from the north slope and [when] he was a child and he remembers hearing about Satan and Hell for the very first time. So that tells me that that’s not something that we grew up with traditionally before Christianity. I think it’s interesting that the artist chose to put a mask of what looks to me to be a devil. In our culture, dancing was so powerful. Many missionaries thought that it had to be satanic. And in their mission to Christianize us our cultural institutions, like dancing, were ultimately broken down because of Christianization. So, I think that it’s very interesting and meaningful that you have this mask of the devil over this man’s shoulder who’s in his Qargi, playing and singing our traditional songs. Because it is almost an indication of things to come.

Melissa Shaginoff: Yeah. I think that’s a really important point to make, a bit of foreshadowing with that mask. Like it’s talking about how there was a shift in that moment of contact. Contact with missionaries. Do you have any thoughts about the placement/perspective of the viewer?

Cordelia Kellie: It’s definitely foreshadowing. Yes, we’re right up with him. It’s almost as if we’re sitting in a seat across from him. It’s not even necessarily like what he sees, it’s what’s behind him, what’s looking at him, and it’s a really interesting perspective to take and to be considerate of. Also, in sitting right across from him, watching him, it reminds me…I heard somebody ask the question once, “Do you know what year it was that we started turning away from the dancers when we dance?” That’s another element of how culture creates the environment. What that tells me is that there was a time when we were dancing, where we would dance towards the drummers. But now when we’re dancing, we dance away from the drummers, in a line. And that’s something I want to track down a little bit better. But because of that question, it makes me think that we used to dance towards the drummers. If you think about why that’s changed, in my mind, it’s performances (laughs). We have performances now. We have performances to external audiences and a stage. We didn’t have stages in the same way in the Qargi, where you are in more of a circular space. Where do we dance now? We dance on stages, we dance in convention centers, we dance in gyms, in front of so many people. It’s interesting that we’re sitting here facing the drummer because if he’s drumming, I’m going to be dancing, and I’m going to be facing him. It’s another, something that also shows a little bit of an evolution and what we do because of the physical spaces that we’re in.

Melissa Shaginoff: Kind of like the way that you’re situated in this painting. Wow. That’s an amazing, amazing point of view. Tsin’aen, Cordelia.

Cordelia Kellie: Thanks so much for the prompt, and you’re right about how entwined the dancers and the drummers were, and something my uncle, who’s a very accomplished dancer from Point Hope told me, and Point Hope’s on the Northwest Arctic coast, is that the drummers actually tell the dancers what to do. It’s not the same as knowing a dance, memorizing it, and then having it set to music, so to speak. It’s like if the drummers pick up, you pick up, and if they slow down, you slow down, and they tell you where to start, and they tell you when to stop. You could always hear, for example, the end of a song if you have a trained ear. This is something that’s really funny actually. Really fun when you have guests in our community, is like the song kind of continues, and then to an external guest, it just ends all of a sudden. People always ask, “How do you know when to stop?” And people remark about how you have that entire gym and everyone just stops at the same exact moment, and they’re sometimes surprised and it’s done because they can’t hear when to stop. It’s the tenor of the drummer’s voices and the way they drum; it just elevates just a little bit more. It gets a little bit more intense and elevated and emphasized, and then when you hear that, you know the last beat’s going to be the end. Again, that’s another way that the drums are really telling you what to do.

Melissa Shaginoff: Wow. Thank you. Can we look at another piece?

Cordelia Kellie: Yes, this one. This is a woman and she has a tavluģun. She has a chin tattoo; I think about when this was created, and I think about how many women at that time still had them and to what degree? Could this have been something from the artist’s recollection because maybe there weren’t that many at that time, or if there were still women around who did still have them? Especially the fact that he’s from the Nome area, which relative to the North Slope, had a longer history of colonization.

I’m curious if this is something where he remembers from his childhood, or if it’s something that was just more like group collective memory, or if there were people around the time who still had them in his area. My mom was born in 1968, so when she was a little girl, she said she does remember seeing a woman who had a chin tattoo, but then after that, there wasn’t anybody else, and she was a very old Elder. So when I think about the chin tattoos, and I think about how magnificent it is that now there’s this really explosive revitalization of our tavluģun, of our chin tattoos.

It makes me think about getting my own chin tattoo and what that would look like. I also think about Western beauty standards and just how much tension there would be personally if I were to get my tattoo. I do imagine what it would be like to have my own chin tattoo. In my community of Wainwright, the last woman in my direct line who had one is my great-great-grandmother, Bernice Tober. You can see in pictures of her that she has a chin tattoo, and it was one line.

Our tavluģun is something incredibly beautiful to signifying our growth and rite of passage as the woman. But because of colonization there is now complexity around something that was not so complex before. There’s an anxiety and reservation, you have maybe people wrestling with the decision to get it, their tavluģun. We have to think about our Christianized relatives and wonder at times…if we receive our tattoo, will they ever be able to look at us again? It’s a lot of tension. There’s an internal conflict because you wonder, will you still be the same person everywhere you go.

Melissa Shaginoff: And yet how do we honor who we really are? I have the same experience and questions in deciding whether I should get my tattoo.

Cordelia Kellie: Yes, it is hard. Tavluģuns and what they represent to at least just to me, one person, is incredible beauty and pride, and how wonderful it is that they’re becoming ubiquitous again.

Melissa Shaginoff: Tsin’aen again. How about we look at one more?

Cordelia Kellie: Yes, let me see. The boats that have sails on them.

So this was interesting to me, about ten years ago I was in my early twenties and I saw a picture of this in a book. And it was an umiak with sails, and that was just something I’d never heard of before. I feel like I can count the number of times I’ve ever encountered imagery of an umiak with sails on them. I read about it a couple of times, but it’s not something I ever talked about. I think when I first saw this image, I made sure to verify it with a couple of other people, Elders, and I asked, “Did we used to have sails in umiak?” and they were like, “Uh-huh. Yep.”

But other than that, I’ve not ever heard much else. I read books, but these texts are written by people who are Europeans, whalers, explorers, and whatnot. But Elders, talk about what we had at the time and how we used to get around, and it makes sense. We would sail. We would sail for trade fairs, for travel, and for hunting. I think my point of this is that we don’t always pass down things that are normal to us, and that’s why this painting is really interesting. This artful documentation of everyday scenes is like ones that were such common depictions of what life was like is important because we don’t have stories about things that are normal.

Young people have to piece these things together for ourselves to be able to understand more about what our life was like. It comes back a little bit to the injustice of our education system, because I, as an Inupiaq woman, know so much about what life was like for Europeans in the Americans before, say 1900.

I notice how little my Inupiaq knowledge is relative to European knowledge–when I read things about Inupiaq life, they catch my attention. Like simple food storage. I feel like I have an okay understanding of how European people would preserve food such as canning or jarring. But Inupaiq food storage would use the stomachs of reindeer. Or we would store things in the fat of sea mammals

This everyday living is not passed down in the same way, because we don’t pass down the things that are so normal. So again, it just leaves us having to scramble and put things together for what everyday life was like prior to European influence. That’s what caught my attention. Is the very few times I ever hear of our sailing, so it’s really interesting that he has a few of them depicted here.

You have so many different parkas depicted on the umiak. It looks like there’s a blue cloth parka, there’s a spotted reindeer parka, and regular reindeer parkas, white hunting parkas.

One more thing I’ll just note in general is that in his artworks, you’ll see parkas made of cowhide, and we don’t have cows. I think this really speaks to how our culture continues to evolve; when you have such strong outside influences that you take the influences and you make them your own, and that’s how you continue being Inupiaq. No matter what the time, no matter what we’re wearing or what we’re eating or how it is we’re living. We take on the influence and we make it our own, and in ways nobody would’ve expected to use that material or that resource.

Melissa Shaginoff: It’s Indigenous brilliance that ingenuity. Even in the face of assimilative practices.

Cordelia Kellie: Yes, how we use loaders to help pull in a whale, for example. Or how we might use guns, or four-wheelers, or snow machines. When the snow machine was created, did they think it was going to be used for subsistence hunting? Or with the loaders, did they think it was going to be used to pull in a whale? We say work smarter, not harder. So just in the sense that we just take what’s available, and we make it work for us.